Chef’s Upscale Soul Food Eatery Battling Rejection From White Neighbors
By Chinta Strausberg
Defender Contributing Writer
A former professional basketball player in France for seven-years, Emanuel Washington a 27-year seasoned veteran chef is living his passion—to provide healthy, tasty soul food to his customers, at his own upscale restaurant, Grub Chicago, in the University Village Near West Side community.
Located at 1230 West Taylor, Washington, a native Chicagoan, cooks everything from scratch with does of pure love. “I am passionate about what I do. I put love in the food and you can tell it,” he said as he stood 6’5” in his beautifully decorated restaurant. “Grub Chicago is the only restaurant of its kind in America,” said Washington who opened the restaurant on November 16, 2014.
Born in the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side, Washington graduated from Austin High School and went on to the University of Colorado where he majored in financing and marketing. He was a professional basketball player in France for 7-years. After graduation, he worked on LaSalle Street in Chicago’s banking and financial district.
Looking back over his life, Washington said, “I have always had a passion for cooking beginning at the age of 9. My grandmother kept me in the kitchen with her. The only time I could leave home was to play basketball. She had me going to the pantry getting different things but what I didn’t realize then was that she was also teaching me” about the science of mixing ingredients.
His grandmother, Alice Hughes, who held the position church “Mother” for 61-years. “She was the heart of Monumental Faith,” said Washington. She once asked him if it is true that soul food is unhealthy. Washington began researching the topic.
When he was in college, Washington said he was known for his cooking and his apartment became a hub of social gatherings but with a price. “I charged them $5.00 a plate for a full-course meal. You could not get that sort of food in Colorado back then,” he mused. “I knew then I wanted to own my own restaurant.” Washington knew with his passion for cooking, his business acumen and culinary skills, it would be hit.
Bad luck hit Washington who injured his knee for he could no longer play basketball. He was a guard. Washington came back to Chicago. He was torn between going back into corporate America or to follow his dream of owning a restaurant. He decided to enroll in a culinary school which back then he said wasn’t so popular. “I wanted to learn the science behind the cooking.”
He got a job at a restaurant peeling and chopping potatoes, but he said, “I knew I was way above that level and in following his ream he is now a professional chef nationally and internationally for the past 27-years.
Washington has worked in the New York chef’s market and in Washington, D.C. as an executive chef to the Department of Defense Analyses where he fed only the top military officials—generals and admirals.
Asked why did he name his restaurant Grub Chicago, Washington explained, “Grub means soul food” hence that is his tag line for his restaurant – “Put your Grub on.” “Everyone loves soul food, but everyone does not have access to it. This restaurant is in a beautiful community where everyone can have access to premium soul food. I want everyone regardless of color, ethnicity or sexual orientation to dine at Grub Chicago because it is for everyone. It is the only restaurant of its kind in America.”
Washington said his restaurant could compete with any restaurant in Chicago. “We just happen to be a soul food restaurant,” he said. “I came back home to Chicago a year ago specifically because soul food restaurants were closing in Chicago and across the nation. I put my money on the line and built this restaurant because it was something that had to be done in my hometown. I am passionate about what I do. I put love in the food, and you can tell it,” he said.
“Grub Chicago is something the Lord built,” said Washington who is proud of hiring from the community including second chance employees. “I not only give them a job, but I train them for a career, but I need the community to support me. I need the churches to support what I am doing. I am a God-fearing man. I always have been and always will be. I work hard and pray hard and don’t sweat in the middle,” he said who is a food historian, a lecturer and author of Soul Food 10.0.
Washington is also proud of his cooking saying he makes al of his sauces and salad dressings and all food is cooked fresh from scratch. “Our customers leave satisfied, and they never lead stuffed or bloated. Rather they have more energy.”
He is also proud to have known the late Dr. Webb Evans, known as the father of the “Buy Black” movement, who died earlier this year at the age of 101. “I’ll never forget what he would say, ‘As often as you can, put your dollar in another black hand.’ He was the architect of the Buy Black movement.”
But not everyone is welcoming Washington to the University Village. He said two-weeks ago, there was a four-day Italian festival in the community but the University Village Association allegedly failed to invite him and to add insult to injury they approved placing a 40-foot mobile hot dog trailer in front of his business. It was from New York. “They don’t even pay taxes here,” he said. “I lost $30,000 in business.
“When I called the association and asked them to move it, I was told she had been sued by the Irish last year so she expects to be sued by an African American….” Washington said he reached out to Ald. Jason C. Irvin (28th) for help but he allegedly never returned his phone calls.
Activist Revin Fellows, co-founder of the national Black Agenda Consortium, is helping Washington and has launched a 31-day ‘Buy Black, Love Black and Give Black’ campaign in honor Dr. Evans. It’s also held during the 14th anniversary of the Black Business Month. “This is the year of the Black Woman” as, declared by the United Nations. He said black women have a buying power of $680 billion and that he wants them to spend at least 2 percent of that with black businesses. He is asking organizations and churches to patronize the restaurant.
“People say things about my restaurant but they’ve never eaten here,” said Washington. People say things about me who don’t know me or even met me. With a business of this magnitude, you have to expect some of that, but it is not true. I am a God-fearing man always have been and always will be. One think I know for sure is that the Lord always has the last word.” He is looking for support for his restaurant from the African American community.